SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Many of Utah’s first responders face their own personal battle with trauma on the job. In the prior edition of Behind the Badge, ABC4 News reported how often police or firefighters witness something horrific and what it does to their mental health. In part two of “Trauma’s Emotional Toll,” Behind the Badge explores – What’s being done about it?
Recovering from trauma on the job isn’t an easy road for Utah police and firefighters.
“We live in it all day, every day for decades in our career, it never goes away, we live it,” said Ogden Police Officer Robert Evans. Whether he wants it to or not, Evans said his mind can instantly go back to the worst calls of his career.
“There are so many,” he said. “You just started the movie… it’s okay because I can handle it now. But you just started the movie.”
For some first responders, the haunting images of horrific fires, shootings, or car crashes can be crippling.
“There’s only so much we as humans can hold before we become completely saturated with these stresses,” said Salt Lake City Fire Capt. Shaun Mumedy.
For years, the stigma of trauma among first responders led many to suffer in silence, and the solution isn’t just a one-pronged approach. There’s now an evolving trend for responders to open up — and to accept those who do. President of Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police Brent Jex said he only sought help when his police friends noticed he was hurting and spoke up about it.
“Which was hard for them. It was hard for me, but it literally saved me,” said Jex.
Offering this peer-to-peer support is now a big part of Evans’ life. Since 2012, he said he’s traveled the state with the Utah Critical Incident Stress Management team, giving help to officers who experience a traumatic call. Right now, his team is averaging 110 visits a year.
“I want officers and first responders to know there is hope,” said Evans. “If you’re having a dark time like I was, with very little light, very little air, you can see the light again, you can have hope.”
In Salt Lake County, Unified Police (UPD) has a wellness program, part of which trains their supervisors to be more focused on first responders’ mental health. Sheriff Rosie Rivera said there’s special training for officers to help identify trauma.
Sheriff Rivera said the UPD wellness program sets aside funding so officers can see therapists like Kent Allen, who specializes in trauma among first responders. Allen uses therapy with eye movement, called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Allen said, on average, therapists can successfully weed out the trauma in just under four sessions.
“These types of therapies go in and literally take the emotion out of the experiences that they’ve had, and when that emotion is gone, then the mind is able to go in and process what happened to them,” said Allen.
He said the hardest part is simply convincing responders to make an appointment, and then helping their agencies get funding to cover the therapy’s often expensive price tag. Earlier this year, the Utah State Legislature addressed trauma funding. During their 2022 general session, Utah lawmakers passed a bill, budgeting $5 million for first responders’ mental health. Many said it’s much appreciated, but it’s not enough to cover the state’s widespread need.
“In all candor, one of our major agencies in the state would absorb that in a matter of one or two years,” said Evans.
Mumedy said city funding is letting them expand their mental health services beyond responders to people who call 911.
“We have a community health access team where we send out qualified mental health professionals to a call that are dispatched at the same time as our firefighters,” said Mumedy. “We all show up together within minutes to a mental health emergency.”
For the responders who’ve taken advantage of the mental health resources now available, like therapy or peer support, they said it is life-changing.
“You hear people talk about that fog or that haze of depression and once I got that squared away with myself. It really was like the sun came out and the sky was bluer,” said Mumedy.
“I don’t know if I can adequately describe the impact that it’s had,” said Jex.
“I’m doing very well… it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that I can sit here and say that,” said Evans.
While they can’t change what they see on the job, these responders said emerging mental health tools like these give them hope to recover from the emotional toll.
Based on what these responders tell ABC4 News, each officer or firefighter’s personal battle with trauma could vary depending on their access to these resources. That’s why they’re passionate about speaking up, to hopefully encourage someone to ask for help, and expand these tools in the future.